The Japanese New National ID System
If you’re in Japan right now, there’s one topic dominating the news: My Number. My Number (the system is referred to in Japanese by the English words) is the Japanese government’s scheme to create a national ID system.
The ID number — My Number — will link together all government, health, financial and other records. It has raised concerns about privacy, ID theft and IT boondoggles, as well as practical, day-to-day, implementation issues. None of those concerns, however, seem to be slowing down the drive to get the new system up and running in January 2016.
All Information Regarding Every Japanese Citizen Will Be Stored In A Number
Three years in the making, in October 2015 every Japanese person with an official residence record (zyuuminho) will be sent a notice to their last known address, telling them to drop by their local municipal office with ID to pick up their an IC-chipped My Number card. The card will have a unique 12-digit number on it and offer the option of including their photograph. Foreigners legally resident (but not visitors) in Japan will also get a My Number.
To begin, My Number will replace the 11-digit Basic Resident Register Network system number from 2002, everyone’s tax ID number, social security number and any other numbers used to access government benefits and services, including registering in Japan’s national school system and qualifying for disaster relief.
Since Japan uses a nation-wide health system, My Number will also serve as the identifier for health records, as well as a basic form of general ID. Insurance companies and banks will also use My Number, likely linking bank accounts and ATM services to the card.
Companies in Japan will also have to use My Number for various legally required records, notices of acquisition and employment, insurance qualification and other documents to be submitted to administrative entities.
My Numbers will be issued to children basically upon birth, as soon as their parent(s) file their birth documents to add them to the family register (koseki.)
The government is running a full-on public relations campaign complete with cute manga characters to sell the idea of My Number on convenience. One number and card will replace a wallet-full of others. That’s good, right? Maybe, but there are concerns.
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Is There Any Privacy Concern With The New Japanese ID?
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While implementing such a system in the post-Snowden United States would put privacy concerns at the top of anyone’s list, privacy in Japan has always ranked lower. Few mainstream voices seem concerned about nearly all of one’s life being available inside one computer system. Why? Perhaps because of the group consciousness, perhaps because so many things in Japan are part of the national government and thus centralized anyway or perhaps because the Japanese people are more trusting than they might be.
Can The New Japanese ID Be Stolen?
A focus in Japan is, however, ID theft. The My Number card is you. Japan’s cyber security has a poor reputation, with hacks, lost laptops chock full of unencrypted data they should not have held in the first place, and malware loaded onto main systems by clerks playing games at work regularly featured in the news.
Since My Number will be used by so many agencies and even private concerns such as insurance companies, the number of people with access only adds to the potential for data leaks. In addition, the IC-chip on the cards is fully hackable, adding to peoples’ worries.
How Will the Japanese Government Use The Number?
The government has been shy about saying when, where and how My Number will be used, and by whom. Will life insurance companies have access to health records? Banks to tax records? Just who will see what? It is all quite unclear.
At the same time, odd ideas are being floated that seem to push My Number into unexpected places. For example, Japan is likely to move to a tiered sales tax system soon. Like in the U.S., some basic foods will have no sales tax, while other things, like alcohol, will have higher taxes. One scheme envisions a blanket tax applied to all purchases, with those purchases tracked by My Number, all leading to a refund at the end of the year.
Is the Number Used As An IT Boondoggle?
But perhaps the biggest issue talked about in the Japanese media is that My Number is intended more as a boondoggle to feed tax money into struggling IT firms than anything else.
Cost estimates are stratospheric, in the trillions of yen, with maintenance and upgrades assuring a cash flow for the information tech industry forever. Critics cite the earlier Basic Resident Register Network system, which cost the government a huge sum of money, was initially hailed as the way to improve social services, but in reality has proved to be of little value.
It has not helped matters that Tokyo police have already arrested one Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry official on charges of taking a bribe over a contract related to Japan’s My Number identification system. He allegedly received cash from the then-president of a consulting firm in return for helping the firm to win a contract for a My Number project.
The My Number system comes on line in a few months. Japanese residents will have no means of opting out, and can only take a wait-and-see, if not a hope-for-the-best, attitude.